Something To Remember Me By
Y'know, Ben Lee must be the luckiest kid in the world. Still a few years off from drinking (well, he probably can in his native Australia, but you know what I mean), but he's on his second solo album (not to mention stuff by his actual band, Noise Addict), he hangs out with the Beastie Boys and Sonic Youth, his albums feature cameos by folks like Money Mark and that dog., and yup, he's a damn talented songwriter and guitarist, to boot.
It would seem, though, that he's not so much of a "kid" anymore; judging from the melancholy bent of a lot of the love songs on here, not to mention the increased sureness of his voice and guitar, he's done some growing up in the 3-odd years since his last album, Grandpaw Would. This album features a much more fleshed-out, "mature" sound, too -- gone is the stark, up-close-and-personal 4-track of the first album, but thankfully, the songs survive the kinder production. The ethereal night-time voices in the background on "Gramercy Park Hotel" make me want to cry, and the full band backing on songs like "New Song" sounds absolutely great.
I'd have to say, as well, that if anything, Ben has gotten better at writing these beautiful little pop songs. Innocent and naked still, with truly well-thought-out lyrics -- I'm sure there are lots of folks I could compare him to, but more than most I'm reminded of Billy Bragg's less overtly political moments (and no, it's not 'cause Ben sings with an accent). When I hear the first song on here, the bitter anti-ballad "How To Survive A Broken Heart," I find myself nodding along and remembering the last time it happened to me. I wonder at first that a seventeen-year-old kid can be this full passion...but then I remember how I felt at that age. This is every heartbreak, self-doubt and desperate love ever remembered from everybody's teenage years and beyond -- and don't you doubt it. (JH)
(Grand Royal Records)
Mary Lou Lord
Got No Shadow
There's a fine line between invaluable collaborator and svengali. Ben Mink (k. d. lang), Patrick Warren (Michael Penn), Jon Brion (damn near everybody, including Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple) all share an implicit understanding that their job is to make the other person sound good. No matter how important their contributions or how much they shape the sound, they all ultimately act in a supporting role.
That's not always the case, though, and you need look no further than Mary Lou Lord's latest album, Got No Shadow, to see what happens when the sideman ends up controlling the project. Nick Saloman, Mr. Bevis Frond himself, plays a lot of guitar and contributes an equal number of songs as the star does, and his grubby little fingerprints end up all over Ms. Lord's music. In fact, he contributes more to the proceedings than Lord does: despite the countless pictures of Lord in street performance with her acoustic guitar, all she does is sing, with Saloman and others (including ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn, Oscar nominee Elliot Smith and, there he is again, Jon Brion) taking up the slack.
And so Lord takes a secondary role on her own album. Songs that should probably be based around light instrumentation supporting Lord's high and thin voice are instead smothered by Saloman's electric guitar, which is a shame, because there's definitely potential for some great music here. The Byrds quote that opens up "Some Jingle Jangle Morning" turns out to be the only obvious (and lame) part of the song, which barrels along like Liz Phair's crunchier (PG-rated) dreams. "His Lamest Flame" is easily the highlight of the album, with its jangly drive, exuberant lyricism and vocal hook, but it's curiously flat and subdued. Most of the rest of the album has the same compressed sound to it, which seems unfair to Lord, since most of the obvious clunkers, especially lyrically, tend to be Saloman's songs (or collaborations, so I'll still blame him).
It's telling that one of the album's high points is the folk standard "Shake Sugaree." With just Elliot Smith's acoustic guitar backing her up, Lord finally comes into her own, playful and sad at the same time. It is, of course, the only song without Saloman on the album. Lord on her own could probably make an appealing cross between Shawn Colvin (one of her heroes, who sings backup on the closing "Subway") and a streetwise Victoria Williams. Instead, she comes across as a post-grunge street-corner Suzi Quatro, acting on the orders of her puppetmaster. (MH/Spring 1999)
The Telephone Album
Yes, you really can have too much fun in the studio, and this record's proof -- there are some truly nice pop songs on here that get ruined (or at least, detracted from) by goofy samples, backwards shit, and funky production tricks. You think you've gotten to the end of a song and...a marching band? What the fuck, guys. Alright, everybody keep your fucking hands off the mixing board -- got it?
My other problem with this album, though, is more crucial than some overzealous knob-twiddling. Lotion play some damn fine pop music, and they're very good at what they do, managing to pull off some complex arrangements with an audible smirk, but...well, the lyrics basically suck. For the most part they tend to be sing-songy nonsense just this side of your favorite nursery rhyme -- not that there's anything intrinsically wrong with that, but it's VERY hard to do (ask Robert Pollard; I'm sure he knows). The bad part about the nonsensical lyrics here is that about 80% of the time, it doesn't sound like they mean anything -- not even to the band themselves. They're just words that they strung together 'cause they rhymed and sounded clever, and that's bad, bad news...it's barely a step further down the road to Soul Asylum's And The Horse They Rode In On, and trust me, that's nowhere you wanna be.
Even still, there are some nice, hook-filled pop moments here: "Glorified" is pretty gloriously catchy; "Rich Cop, Poor Cop" has a bad-ass chorus; "5th Fret, Distant Cousin" is pleasantly Guided By Voices-ish at points; and the Meices-meet-Brainiac stomp of "Drop Dead" is cool throughout. However, I dunno if I'd recommend this album solely for those three tracks...sorry, guys. (JH/Spring 1999)
(spinART Records -- P.O. Box 1798, New York, NY. 10156-1798)